‘One of the great intellectual giants,’ Newman challenged Catholic thought and practice

12 October 2019

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From his towering intellect to his courageous devotion, Blessed John Henry Newman and his legacy are firmly cemented in Edmonton’s Catholic community.

His name graces both Newman Theological College and the Newman Centre lecture hall in St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta. His works have influenced the thought of priests and Catholic intellectuals on both campuses.

And when the 19th-century English cardinal and theologian is canonized at the Vatican on Oct. 13, his influence will be made only more permanent there and around the world.

“He is one of those intellectual giants in our civilization,” said Ryan Topping, vice-president and academic dean at Newman Theological College. Like Newman, Topping joined the Catholic Church from a different faith tradition.

“He thought very deeply on the relationship between faith and reason, and what Newman sought to fight against was the separation of the two. He acted as a kind of guide in my own thinking towards conversion.”

John Henry Newman

Newman’s Christian life began with a zealous embrace of Evangelical Anglicanism at the age of 15 and ended as a Catholic cardinal in Rome. His life is one of steadfast convictions, drastic changes, damning criticism and high praise.

What united all phases of Newman’s life was an unending search for the truth, says Indre Cuplinskas, a history professor at St. Joseph’s College. Wherever that search led him, he would follow it no matter the consequences.

Prof. Indre Cuplinskas

“On a personal level, I’m really impacted by his integrity. He meticulously followed both his mind and his heart,” said Cuplinskas. “He knew things like joining the Catholic Church would cause a scandal, but he still followed through on it. It’s inspiring that a person can come to a position that’s so different from where they started, developing these reasoned conclusions and knowing that they must see them through.”

Born in London in 1801, Newman professed his Christian faith as a teenager and embraced both celibacy and a call to priesthood.

“At an early age he had an openness to the truth of the Gospel,” Topping said. “Even as a young man he felt he had a special calling to devote himself to God without having to attend to family life.”

In his 20s, Newman studied at Oxford’s Trinity College with ambitions of becoming a priest. His religious views began to change at this time, and he developed a more intellectual and philosophical approach to his faith.

Newman was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825. The writings of the Church Fathers, the scholars and theologians that made up the first centuries of Christian thought, soon dominated his intellectual development.

From the 1830s to 1840s, Newman became a key player in the Oxford Movement  ̶- Anglican priests and scholars who sought to “return to the sources” and bring many Catholic and Apostolic practices that predated the 16th-century English Reformation into the Anglican Church. These practices ranged from the use of incense during Mass to the veneration of Mary and the saints.

Rev. Scott Sharman

At the time, opinion of Newman varied among Anglicans.

“He attracted a lot of interest and inspired a following of people who saw his vision of the Church of England recovering these ancient roots that it lost during the reformation as really compelling,” said Rev. Scott Sharman, an Anglican priest and ecumenical officer for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton.

“Others saw it as deeply problematic, that these scholars were rejecting or turning their backs on the reformed character of the Church of England and betraying its spirit.

“That remains an ongoing tension in the Anglican Church,” Sharman said. “There is still a variety of voices who strongly identify with the Anglican Catholic movement that Newman’s thought is often associated with.”

Throughout this period the Oxford Movement grew in influence among the intellectual class of England. But Newman brought it to an abrupt end when he published the controversial Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1891.

In it, Newman argued that the beliefs of the Church of England were in accordance with certain Catholic teachings. Many thought Newman was trying to “Catholicize” England’s state church, and his reputation was severely scandalized.

In reaction to the controversy, Newman withdrew to the small English town of Littlemore. In 1843 he renounced many of the things he had once said against Catholicism – including charges of idolatry and calling the pope an Antichrist.

Blessed John Henry Newman

Newman then began work on one of his most famous books, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Through in-depth studies of how the church of the first centuries dealt with heresies and developed its teachings, Newman wanted to show that the Catholic Church was that same church founded by Christ and ministered by the Apostles.

“In the Development of Christian Doctrine, he’s facing this question of how the Church can develop over time yet still be rooted in the principles of the early Church,” said Topping. “When he finally put down his pen, he felt he had moral and intellectual certainty that the Church of Rome was the same Church of the Council of Trent, the Council of Nicea, and the same Church of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts.”

Cuplinskas sees this book and Newman’s autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, as ways both to publicly defend his position and to prove to himself he made the right choices.

“His conversion causes a great stir in England – people are watching what he’s doing,” she said. “It is something that is very much happening on the public stage. He’s a prominent Oxford scholar. He’s a prominent thinker of this movement that’s making huge waves in the Church of England. And suddenly, from some people’s perspective, he’s now joined the dark side. And he’s not just leaving a church, he’s leaving the state church of England, of which he was a star. So he knew he had to explain this conversion in a very public way.”

Newman joined the Catholic faith in 1845. At the time, Catholics in England were barred from attending universities, participating in government, and having their own dioceses.

“Catholicism was viewed back then the way many progressive people view it today; namely, that it’s a religion for backwards and ignorant people,” said Topping. “When Newman converted, that view exploded. The intellectual class in England now had to take Catholicism seriously in a way that it didn’t before.”

Despite the hostilities and controversy, in this same period Newman became a pioneer in ecumenism.

“Newman exemplified ecumenical relations even when there were vast differences in understanding,” said Sharman.

“There were many Anglican colleagues, like Edward Pusey, he had a particularly close relationship with even after he became Catholic. There are letters that demonstrate that while they had different conclusions, there was a mutual respect there and a desire to keep good relations.”

This ecumenical effort is seen even today in the joint document the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anglican Church of Canada published together in honour of Newman’s canonization.

Sharman also notes that Newman’s Anglican background can be seen in his work as a Catholic, particularly in the importance he saw in synods and his hesitations around the doctrine of papal infallibility.

“He brought many gifts from his Anglican roots into the Catholic tradition,” Sharman said. “I’m reminded of a remark Pope Benedict had made on ecumenism. In what he called the ‘ecumenism of return,’ Pope Benedict said that someone coming to the Catholic Church from other traditions was not starting from scratch. They bring things into their faith journey from those other traditions. Retroactively, we can look at that when we talk about Newman.”

Newman was ordained Catholic priest in 1847 and founded the Birmingham Oratory religious community and the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin. In recognition of his contributions, Newman was elevated to the College of Cardinals under Pope Leo XIII in 1879.

Topping sees this title as an affirmation that Newman’s many trials and challenges were not in vain. The cardinal also paved the way for future English Catholics who rose to prominence in the 20th century, such as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and J.R.R. Tolkien.

“He suffered a lot of opposition in both his Anglican and Catholic days. There are many times he was fought against,” said Topping. “But being raised to the rank of cardinal was Pope Leo XIII’s way of praising the direction of Newman and holding him up as a model for the intellectual life.”

A banner of Blessed John Henry Newman hangs on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. He is among five people to be canonized by Pope Francis Oct. 13.

Newman’s work became even more influential after his death in 1890. In the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, the Church sought to address its relationship with the modern world.

Newman’s thoughts on how doctrine changes throughout history were foundational for the council, and he is sometimes referred to as the hidden father of Vatican II. Newman also emphasized the role of the laity in the Church. This was not only an influence on the Second Vatican Council; it played a major role in the founding of Newman Theological College in 1969.

The college created a unique environment with both lay people and seminarians studying side by side and a faculty of priests, nuns and lay professors.

Archbishop Anthony Jordan

“College founder Archbishop Anthony Jordan wanted an educated laity, capable of knowing their own minds and giving reasons for their faith. That’s a thrust that Newman really put forth,” said Topping.

Newman Theological College is also developing a new Bachelor of Arts in Catholic Studies program that is heavily influenced by Newman. In his book The Idea of the University, Newman proposed that Catholic education should be a study of all disciplines and sciences. He believed students should be given a complete scope of knowledge rather than an education solely in isolated or specialized courses.

The college’s Catholic Studies program will include courses in philosophy, theology, literature, the arts and a variety of subjects to offer a complete and unified education.

“In many modern universities, the individual departments have nothing to say to each other because there’s not this underlying account of the goal of knowledge or what it’s grounded in,” said Topping.

“With Newman, and in the Catholic intellectual tradition more broadly, we have an account of where knowledge originates – it comes from God. And therefore all knowledge is good and worthy of study. We think all things from physics to economics should fall under the rule of reason, illumined by faith.”

Whether it is in the future of Catholic education, the ecumenical work of local Catholics and Anglicans, or the relic of Newman’s hair recently put on display at the college’s chapel, Newman’s influence continues to grow.

As he joins the recognized saints of the Catholic Church, Newman’s legacy in the Archdiocese of Edmonton is only just beginning.